Q&A: Chris Melillo

Former Nike executive brings a wealth of retail experience to his new position as a senior vice president at Curaleaf

One of the largest cannabis companies in North America made a splash when it brought in a former director of retail for Nike to help oversee the continued expansion of its dispensary chain.

Chris Melillo, a “New Yorker by nature” with vast experience at major retailers, including Nike, PetSmart and The Home Depot, joined Curaleaf on Aug. 20 as the company’s senior vice president of retail. The high-profile hire represents the latest in an ongoing trend of non-cannabis executives jumping into the ever-growing legal marijuana space, transitioning from a product that was legal throughout the world to one with limited legality on a state-by-state basis.

“It’s an interesting challenge to navigate through,” Melillo says. “For me, I take it as something I haven’t done before and it kind of reinvigorated me. I can probably tell you a lot more about footwear, but I’m learning something new, which is very fun and exciting.”

Melillo says he always wants to work for companies that are the biggest and best in their industry. He believes he’s found that with Curaleaf, which currently has a presence in 12 states. It owns and operates 28 dispensaries — a number that could jump to 43 by the end of 2018, Melillo says.

“I think our growth story is, has been and will continue to be amazing,” he says.

Melillo — in his second interview as a representative of Curaleaf — spoke with Marijuana Venture about the challenges of the industry, the opportunity for consistency, and the importance of putting patient care and wellness first and foremost in all decisions.

 

Marijuana Venture: What have you been doing since joining Curaleaf and what’s it been like to get your bearings in the cannabis industry?

Chris Melillo: It’s been a very fast-paced four weeks. My boss, Curaleaf chief operating officer Stuart Wilcox, and I have done pretty extensive traveling to see every dispensary and operation we own to understand the scope and depth and breadth of this organization.

From a retail perspective, it’s about understanding our dispensaries and getting to know how we handle patient care and the process I call the “consumer journey” through our dispensaries from consult to sale. I’m really immersing myself in the entire experience and the organization and getting an understanding of where we were, where we currently are and starting to formulate where we need to go.

MV: In these early stages, what are some areas you think you can help in moving this business forward?

CM: It’s such a new industry that there’s not a lot of history to pull from, but I think the first thing I can bring to the table is developing consistency in our own organization and really working toward being best in class in each of the states we operate. There are nuances between each state, but there are some things we can stand for as an organization and have some built-in consistencies, so you have the same experience from Curaleaf to Curaleaf, whether they happen to be in the same state or if you’re changing states.

When you think about great retailers and what they do, it’s the training and experience that the employees provide, but it’s also the overall experience. I always like to reference Starbucks. You could blindfold me, put me in a Starbucks and I’ll know exactly where I’m at when you un-blindfold me. The menu board looks the same. The cases look the same. The registers look the same. Each one has a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit and they look a little bit different, but you know you’re standing in a Starbucks wherever you might be.

I use them as an example because I think they do it well. For us, as an industry, there is a theme of consistency that needs to happen, so we can continue to build out under the same great brand and look the way we want to look as we move forward.

MV: How long had you been considering getting into the cannabis space?

CM: I was with Nike out in Portland, Oregon, and the cannabis industry exploded while I was living there.

Watching the green cross pop up on just about every corner, my retail eye went to how different they looked and how different they acted, even within the same brand. My professional eye went to this being a very junior startup that was going to need to streamline, consolidate and start to become more like pharmacy retail or retail overall.

But while this was all happening, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I ultimately ended up losing her a few years ago, but after that grieving process, I kind of realized looking backwards that there was a product that could have eased her pain during the last year of her life, and I felt like I missed an opportunity that was right under my nose. My business eye and my personal feelings kind of came together.

I always want to work in an environment that is high growth and fast pace. When this all happened for me, there was a sign on the wall that I didn’t read right away that this could be a great opportunity. I explored it a little bit in Oregon and got into some conversations with people out there, but ultimately decided to come back east with my family, and then this opportunity presented itself. So the industry wasn’t foreign to me; it was foreign as a career, but I was pretty comfortable thinking about it about three-and-a-half years ago.

MV: What are some of the parallels you see between Nike retail and cannabis retail?

CM: There are some parallels from the footwear industry to cannabis. Whatever retail vein you’re in, you have to understand your consumer. For Curaleaf, our consumers are patients. So I think there’s a high level of sensitivity and a high level of education needed for our employees to meet our consumers and understand what their conditions are and what they’re looking for in the way of treatment.

But to be a little more general, retail is about having an amazing experience. There are a lot of people saying brick and mortar is dying, and I don’t believe that at all. I think it’s excelling and the people who understand it’s excelling are the people who understand it’s about experience and service. It’s not about building just a pretty box.

MV: What has the learning curve been like in dealing with a product that is so far outside your more traditional career experience?

CM: I’m in the honeymoon period of my learning curve. My M.O. is just to ask a lot of questions and talk to as many people who can educate me. My learning curve is steep, and I’m spending an inordinate amount of time on the road. My one line every time I leave a dispensary is, “Thank you for giving me your knowledge today.” They teach me every single time I’m in a dispensary.

Curaleaf has done an excellent job in bringing on excellent talent. And our patients are going to benefit from that.

MV: Have you done some research in looking at non-Curaleaf dispensaries and other markets?

CM: Absolutely. Personally, I believe you need to do your homework before you walk into any venture. I’m absolutely looking to see how everybody does it and they all do it a little bit differently. There are some similarities and there are a lot of great players out there.

I believe the cornerstone of our business is the states with a high barrier to entry and limited licensing. I think that’s who we are and what we stand for, and I think we do it very well. I’m inheriting a very good start. We have great brand recognition, our teams are outstanding, and I think we’re on a really good platform to grow.

MV: Was there anything that you learned from your time at Nike that has stuck with you as you moved forward in your career?

CM: One thing is that Nike and Curaleaf are both matrixed organizations; multiple people make the same decision and there’s a matrixed reporting structure.

What ultimately happens when you have a highly matrixed organization is you vet decisions pretty hard and through a lot of people, so the consumer-facing decision is usually pretty good, because it’s been vetted by so many experts.

It’s not one person making one decision at one time; it’s a team of people making the best decision in the vein of the patients. I like that.

That was how Nike operated it’s a lot how Curaleaf operates, obviously on a bit of a smaller scale. I think that’s really critical for getting consumer-facing decisions right.

MV: Curaleaf is operating in some very interesting markets, with Massachusetts transitioning to recreational and the growth in New Jersey and other states. Is there a particularly interesting market to you as you look ahead to the next year?

CM: They’re all exciting in their own way. They all have huge upside potential.

I just left Florida and that is a state that has a lot of growth ahead of it. I find myself attracted to the fastest growing markets. Florida is going to take a lot of attention and it’s going to take the entire Curaleaf team to bolster the growth of the entire company, while the president in Florida has got his hands full with that expansion, which is super exciting.

Each state is very different, but they’re all exciting in their own right.

MV: When you started meeting with the other Curaleaf executives, what was it about the company that made you feel it was such a good opportunity?

CM: There were a lot of things. The number one reason is if you pull up our website and look at the vast experience of our leadership team, that was very attractive to me. In my opinion, prior to being an employee, Curaleaf was in the lead position in the United States and they were doing it the right way, with consistency in the medical field, with the right approach toward patients, giving care and compassion.

I want to associate myself with and learn from and offer my assistance to the best. That’s just the thing that drives me. I did the same when I went to work for Nike, which I think is the best (footwear company).

I think Curaleaf is in that position (with cannabis) and I think we will continue to be in that position as we drive this industry forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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